If you ask Kansas University debate coach Scott Harris what makes a truly great debater, he’ll say intelligence, verbal skills, creativity and “an incredible work ethic.”
The Scott Harris File
Title: Kansas University debate coach
Born in: Detroit
Came to KU in: 1991 from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he had been debate coach since 1984.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications studies from Wayne State University in Detroit; doctorate in communications studies from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Family: Married to Amy Harris, a realtor. They have three sons, Bradley, 17; Zach, 14; and Ethan, 9. Bradley will be a KU freshman this fall and a member of the debate team.
Hobbies: Playing basketball with a faculty/staff group at KU and playing softball with the Downtown Barbershop team.
If you ask almost anyone else, they’ll say “Scott Harris.”
“He’s clearly one of the two or three most influential debate coaches of the last quarter century,” says KU colleague Robert Rowland, a professor of communications studies and former debate coach. “When on television Brent Musburger called him the Bobby Knight of debate, that’s really not that far off, except no chairs have been thrown that I’m aware of. I really think that’s a pretty good comparison. He’s just so doggone good.”
For the last two decades, Harris has headed KU’s debate program, one of the most celebrated in the country with five National Debate Tournament championships and 14 Final Four appearances. Harris, who just assumed the presidency of the American Forensic Association, has coached three of those Final Four teams and one National Championship team, in 2009. He has acquired numerous honors for his career achievements, including the National Debate Coach of the Year Award in 2006.
But all of that may not signify much to a layperson who, after all, doesn’t get to see televised images of this coach in action, straining, red-faced, across the sideline, barking out commands.
You can take Brett Bricker’s word for it, though: “Dr. Harris is extremely, extremely intense and competitive.”
Indeed, Harris is the reason that Bricker, who describes himself as a “not very successful” high school debater at Wichita Southeast, came to KU. By his senior year, under Harris’ tutelage, Bricker would become the best debater in the nation, winning the 2009 championship with KU teammate Nathan Johnson.
Harris, 53, has been involved with debate for the past 40 years. He credits it with changing him from a bashful teenager into a confident public speaker.
“I was incredibly shy as a young kid and was very introverted, and debate kind of transformed my life by opening up my ability to communicate with people,” he says.
What began as a merely “enjoyable” extracurricular activity at Ferndale High School in suburban Detroit would soon turn into a serious, lifelong passion, or, to use Harris’ more candid term, “an addiction.” He had experienced the same epiphany that his own child would have years later upon discovering the joys of argumentation.
“My older son came to debate camp four years ago,” Harris says, “and he came home after the first day and said, ‘Dad, debate is the greatest thing ever.’”
This year’s college debate topic
Resolved: The United State Federal Government should substantially reduce restrictions on and/or substantially increase financial incentives for energy production in the United States of one or more of the following: coal, crude oil, natural gas, nuclear power, solar power, wind power.
Harris was certain he had found the greatest thing ever — and his life’s path — by his junior year of college at Wayne State, where he studied under professor George Ziegelmueller, a longtime, well-known debate coach whom Harris calls the most influential person in his own career.
“My philosophy on how to teach and coach were largely modeled after him,” Harris says.
Bricker, Harris’ former student who is working on a doctorate in communications studies at KU, describes that philosophy as one of deep involvement. As debaters study their annual topic and become experts on it — this year’s topic is domestic energy policy — Harris is also copiously researching the relevant issues, refining arguments and working one-on-one with debaters to improve their skills. Most importantly, Bricker says, Harris creates an environment of “balance” for his debaters.
“Dr. Harris teaches them how to be competitive and work hard and fight, but also how to love and live your life well,” Bricker says. “It’s an important balance that a lot of coaches may not have.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wayne State, Harris went on to Northwestern University, where he completed a doctorate in communications studies and worked as an assistant debate coach. From there, he took the coaching job at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he worked for several years before coming to KU, which he regarded as “one of the best debate programs in the country.”
“We were lucky to get him,” says professor Donn Parson, who chaired the committee that hired the 32-year-old Harris and who would become an important mentor to him. Parson, a legendary KU debate coach (1964-1988) with three national championships to his credit, says Harris “is probably as good at understanding and creating arguments as anyone I’ve ever met. And,” he emphasizes, “I’ve met a lot.”
When Harris accepted the job, he became only the fourth debate coach at KU since 1958, a situation of stability and continuity that Rowland likens, somewhat reluctantly, to North Carolina basketball.
Collegiate basketball being the universal touchstone, debate is often spoken of as a kind of academic sport. Both pursuits are highly competitive and require dozens of hours of practice per week, as well as travel all over the country. Competitors in each must be smart, agile and able to analyze opposing strategies. While athletes pump iron, debaters develop what Harris calls “verbal muscle.” And both pursuits culminate in wildly anticipated Final Fours.
Harris himself seems keen on the sports comparisons, maybe because he’s the most avid KU athletics fan you’re likely to meet. His office in Bailey Hall is a bastion of crimson and blue, bursting with signed jerseys, photos, helmets, basketballs, footballs and every kind of Jayhawk memorabilia. A gargantuan sneaker worn by Cole Aldrich in the 2008 Men’s National Basketball Championship looms on a shelf behind his desk. And Harris, a faculty mentor to the men’s basketball team, even has a 2008 championship ring.
Alongside these collectibles are framed photos of the world’s most formidable debate teams, their members arrayed — depending on the decade — in sedate suits, plaid sport coats, oversized glasses, colossal lapels, fat neckties, skinny neckties, peg-leg trousers, bell-bottoms. “That’s Bill Webster,” Harris says, pointing to a photo from the early 1970s. Webster went on to become the attorney general of Missouri and a gubernatorial candidate. “And that’s Joel Goldman,” a 1974 KU graduate who became a prominent attorney in Kansas City, then a successful novelist. “And that’s Robert Rowland,” who, with Frank Cross, won the National Debate Tournament in 1976, then went on to coach a champion team at Baylor in 1987 before becoming a coach and professor at KU. You get the sense that you could walk up to any photo on the wall, ask “who’s that?” and be treated to a dazzling story of success. College kids who became prominent lawyers, scholars, businesspeople, doctors, politicians, ministers.
The victory banners lining the basement of Bailey, KU’s debate headquarters, do indeed bring to mind the accolades adorning Allen Fieldhouse, but while such comparisons might elucidate the world of debate, they hardly do it justice. There are some important differences, the most obvious being money. Consider:
• KU debaters don’t get full-ride scholarships. Harris has to recruit against schools, like Baylor, that do provide them. And the four schools that, along with KU, make up the top echelon of collegiate debate — Northwestern, the University of Southern California, Harvard and Dartmouth — are all “rich, private schools,” as Parson puts it.
“We do very well with the support we have, and the university is supportive, but when you compare it to other budgets, other programs, we don’t come off very well,” Parson says. “It’s a little surprising that, given that, we have managed to do as well as we have over the years.”
• Harris is the only full-time staffer in KU’s debate program, which means that in addition to coaching debate and teaching two courses every semester, he is also responsible for a wide array of administrative duties, including travel arrangements for the team and various paperwork.
“Most of the other programs that we compete with have two full-time faculty, at least, that are working with the program, and we don’t,” Parson says.
• The debate season is twice as long as a typical sports season. Debate’s competitive travel season runs from mid-September through Easter. Harris typically takes some time off in May, but come June he’s back at KU running debate camps for high schoolers. Later in the summer he’s off to Michigan State University, where he runs another camp. Frequently the camps, which are important recruiting opportunities, run from 8:30 a.m. until 10 p.m.
While others marvel that Harris does so much while maintaining a competitive edge that no other public university has been able to touch, Harris himself seems to take the workload in stride. When he describes his 12-hour workdays there’s not a trace of complaint in his voice. It’s an adventure he’s describing, not a chore.
“People who choose to debate are debating because they want to debate and are passionate about debate,” and not for any other reward, Harris says.
The reward, after all, is the thing itself — the greatest thing ever.
— Assistant community editor Kim Callahan can be reached at 832-7148.